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Making Values Visible: Hacked Matter and VID

In April, I was lucky enough to participate in Anna and Silvia’s Hacked Matter workshop in Shanghai and Shenzhen – along with having a wonderful time getting to know better the organizers as well as other Transfabric collaborators Denisa and David. In this post, I’ll share some reflections based on the workshop, and will discuss in particular both maker culture (as epitomized by the doings of O’Reilly’s Make magazine and Maker Faire) and China’s economy of shanzhai (counterfeit, copycat) through the lens of Values In Design (VID). VID (e.g. Value-Sensitive Design, Values@Play, Reflective Design, and others) is largely concerned with the ethical, normative, and political implications of technology design and production, and the ways in which material practices and discourse come together as “sociotechnical systems.” I’ll lay out a few of the themes I noticed emerge over the course of the workshop, and their implications for VID scholarship. With the second part of the Hacked Matter workshop series set for the fall, I hope these observations might serve as useful touchstones for further discussion during that event and beyond.

P1210017Copying/Making Narratives

At the workshop’s opening panel, David Li from the Shanghai Hackerspace XinCheJian summed up his assessment of the differences between maker and shanzhai culture as follows: “makers are theoretical and small; shanzhai is open and big.” What followed was a public panel discussion between members of these two tech worlds of Making and shanzhai that yielded a number of productive questions about authenticity, regulation, and technological development. Many participants suggested that the dominant discourse that Maker culture will lead us to the “next industrial revolution,” heavily promoted by O’Reilly Make magazine and friends, is overly simplistic. Nonetheless, the overall attitude towards the “maker” ethos was an optimistic one. For instance, the community of young designers, engineers and entrepreneurs involved in the Shenzhen hackerspace Chaihuo were vocal about the general potential of maker culture enabling change, in particular of existing models of industrial production in China. Several workshop participants pointed to parallels between the contemporary maker movement and open source software hackers of the 1990s, in terms of their sense of community and solidarity among hackers. The comparison between the two generations of hackers also potentially anticipates increased regulatory surveillance, and public anxiety as the maker/DIY community in general begins to engage in more controversial projects such as 3D-printed firearms.


These and similar questions were also frequently posed by workshop participants, in particular when we debated the impacts of dominant Western discourse around Chinese copyright infringement and technology transfer. There was a strong sense, in particular among Chinese workshop participants, that copying was a legitimate mode of technology transfer, and a stage through which the Chinese tech industry needed to pass in order to innovate on its own (in an interesting parallel, Lily Chumley’s research on the Chinese system of higher education in visual art examines institutional expectations of a similar progression by art students). All workshop participants were attuned to the contingent history and inequalities of US copyright law and practice, and the benefits derived by US corporate interests from the current copyright regime. Workshop participants coalesced around the notion that open source hardware and software should be judge according to the quality of its design and the extent to which it conformed to the technical standards set by the originating programmer or maker; the “recipe” of a software program or hardware product should be the bar by which open source “copies” are judged. We concluded that claims and warranties made by such products ought to be both transparent and actually deliverable. For instance, Chinese copies of the open-source hardware starter board Arduino often replicate the original’s “Carbon Neutral” graphic stencil without proof that the copies are as ecologically sound. Yet, how compliance with these standards might be enforced across international boundaries remains an open legal and design question.

Fluctuating Models of Production

Of particular relevance for the VID community are the following workshop themes: 1) the changing nature of production and of distribution networks for digital media hardware, 2) the particularities of sites where hardware components are produced, and 3) the business models underneath these two processes. A question we explored during the workshop was the social and environmental responsibility of members of the maker community.

When we toured through Seeed Studio, a small-scale manufacturing house that designs and produces products for DIY makers, we were able to gain notable insights into the tech manufacturing process. Boutique manufacturing firms like Seeed Studio profit from being able to quickly move assembly work between small batches of niche orders (100-10,000 units). “Cellular” teams of three to eight workers all perform multiple tasks together (soldering, assembling, testing) in order to produce a finished product. According to the founder Eric Pan, the efficiencies achieved through automated assembly line production outweigh the productivity gains from flexible and nimble assembly practices only at order sizes greater than 10,000 units. I believe that insights from scholarship on industrial engineering and logistical management may be useful in pinpointing precisely the type of human, machine, and material factors enable such different economies of scale. Indeed, the evaluation of hardware production and productivity, both in the world of DIY making and more generally, seems a fruitful line of inquiry. Diverse expectations, assumptions, and values embodied in the daily making of hardware shape the business practice and pressures that a company like Seeed Studio faces.



Participants also discussed the ways in which government standards/regulations were poorly designed with regard to small businesses — a complaint that united both Chinese and American entrepreneurs. Whether an environmental standard or labor regulations, regulations were perceived as simultaneously burdensome and under-enforced. The wrong or lack of regulations can hinder long-term social and environmental sustainability, but also business growth: the larger hardware production facilities are, the better they are able to physically comply with regulations. Small businesses can often not afford compliance. While this complaint seems endemic to tech business worlds (and might be taken with some skepticism), the problem of fair and effective regulations across firms of varying size is a real challenge: how can government regulations be designed to benefit not only the “big guys,” but also maker start-ups and small manufacturers?

Hardware start-ups in China, the United States and elsewhere benefit from access to open source hardware specifications. However, it became apparent during the workshop that even businesses using open source specifications and espousing the value and virtues of openness always reserved a “closed” proprietary element that powered their business model (and potential profits). Often kept proprietary was the network of relationships between the firm and its suppliers, distributors, marketers and customers (a model common in other fields). Sometimes even the particularly high quality control at a particular supplier factory was cited as a de facto “secret sauce.” What I want to highlight here is that although start-ups that come out of the DIY maker world are motivated by values of openness and sharing, their business models often don’t differ from more conventional firms – a process that is in part caused by the aforementioned regulations and requirements to sustain their business. Although believe in maker culture and open source is often truly genuine, many seem to be transitioning from open hardware start-ups into more conventional firms.

Overall, workshop participants agreed that hardware production in Shenzhen was changing, with a shortening of supply chains between companies, manufacturers, and consumers. This model also engenders new middlemen: distributors, sources of capital (such as Kickstarter or venture investors), and new modes of marketing/publicity for new products. This changing landscape of production and distribution suggests various possible points for fruitful VID interventions, either analytic or design-based. A final notable insight stemming from the workshop discussions was that specialization and embodied knowledge are central to product manufacturing. While many shanzhai factories are making copies of the same component product, small variation in copy quality between factories is an important factor that suppliers and distributors consider when ordering and purchasing. Some factories and their workforces are more skilled/knowledgeable in producing particular elements than others. The fact that embodied knowledge is still a factor even in large assembly line systems is important for VID scholars, presenting an opening for analysis that explore the interaction between social and technical forces even within these sites, and highlighting how human factors are always present and decisive even in highly regimented industrial production systems.

Making Design Work

A third theme that I see developing out of the workshop is focused more generally on process of “making,” and the changing dynamics and materials of interaction design within the shanzhai and DIY communities. In many ways, discussions around this theme were most directly relevant to VID work in ICT as traditionally conceived, and pointed towards tremendous new avenues for VID research and collaboration. For instance, some hackerspace members stressed continuously that hackerspaces are about “make not talk” — this was both a bracing reminder of the practical material bend of the DIY making and hardware startup culture, and also poses a challenge to traditional modes of analytic criticism. As such, maker culture and open source hardware platforms promise to be fruitful sites for both VID scholarship and professional design practice.


One design space discussed over the course of the workshop centered on interface design and tactility. Tom Igoe from NYU ITP bemoaned the fact that trends in interface and interaction design are moving away from a direct tactile interface with technology, with the Microsoft Kinect leading the trend. With interface design increasingly focused on touch screens and indirect motion sensing for the general user, a number of design possibilities are foreclosed. This principle, of course, is not universal. For instance, if you turn to shanzhai mobile phone production in China, you find inexpensive mobile devices developed for niche markets that often function quite differently than the status-quo: for instance, during our workshop tour though the shanhzai mobile phone markets in Shenzhen, we saw phones designed specifically for the elderly, with large number buttons and raised text.

Workshop participants also inadvertently revealed a central paradox for maker culture: despite participating in a discourse celebrating values like openness and transparency, many of the entrepreneurs involved emphasized their desire to “make things easy” for their users, and by extension to black-box design difficulties and technical challenges. This dichotomy highlights the challenge of extending a “democratic” design ethos to mass production and consumption: while ease of use is democratizing, workshop participants also wondered about the value of experience and challenge in learning to use new technology, and the market pressures forcing small hardware producers to make things easy. In the context of open source products, participants discussed the utility and desirability of “glass-boxing” systems: making products easy to use AND easily accessible to tinkering and modification as a design priority.

Sustainability and the Maker Movement

For me, the question of sustainable making was one of the most important topics discussed during the workshop. Participants were divided whether it was practical, desirable or even feasible to alter production supply chains towards improved environmental outcomes and labor fairness. Some participants pointed out the difficulties of even knowing where their supplies came from. For instance, the hardware components used by small companies and DIY makers, such as circuit board bases and resistors, are nonetheless still produced commercially in large batches through the assembly line method, and then sold wholesale on the open market. In my view, this field of production is a vital one for VID research: mapping the supply chains of makers and producers in major hardware manufacturing centers could provide insights for design interventions. In addition VID researches could partner with maker/hacker spaces to practically experiment with sustainable materials and processes. However, scaling these sustainable design projects up to a commercially viable level is a challenging and critical problem of values and design. How can VID help make sustainable choices about making, copying and innovating pay off?

Luke Stark is a PhD candidate in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

What Worked in Hackathons for the National Day of Civic Hacking

Last weekend was the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH), a country-wide effort to bring people together to solve problems through hackathons, brigade meet-ups and block parties. At their core, hackathons are a simple idea: get a bunch of people together to come up with ideas to solve a problem, particularly through the creation of a working prototype and a short presentation. Beyond this, there are wide variety of ways companies, agencies and groups can integrate it to promote ongoing concerns. Hackathons can be used to locate talented coders as a kind of outsourced headhunting. Activists use them to solve problems as a collective. Companies may be interested in promoting the use of a certain platform, to populate an “app store” or gain traction in the developer community. Yet they can frequently afoul for a variety of reasons. Here are five pragmatic suggestions to keep in mind when running a hackathon:

Balancing – while groups can arise organically, it’s also important to make sure they have the right mix of participants and resources to keep them going. San Francisco State University’s model was closely aligned with the national effort, and presented participants with a selection of ideas to implement. This hackathon was more specifically focused on coding, which worked out well because engineering-inclined students from a local coding boot camp showed up. When ideas presented aren’t well-matched with participant groups, balancing qualitatively different skill sets can be a challenge. The most obvious example of a problem with balancing is when groups find themselves asking a technical question they don’t know the answer to, but can equally be developers who latch on to an implementation before exploring all options. As a loose guide, at the Innovation Lab we advocate for an even mix of hustlers (business), hackers (coders) and designers.


Project Prompts at SFSU

Scaffolding – hackathons can be valuable learning experiences where ideas come from the ground up. This requires  scaffolding where prompts and short segements moved through different stages of design. If it’s difficult for a team to understand where they should be working towards as a team, they can lose focus and drift apart. It can feel overbearing to say “now we’re moving on from idea generation to narrowing down to three ideas” but clear prompts help groups stay on the same page and make progress. There may be times when participants have their heads down working – coding, creating wireframes, making powerpoints – but they should be clear on the goals and task at any given time.

Timing – Along with scaffolding towards specific goals, hackathons by definition take time. Hack Palo Alto had four “idea hackathons” which had a number of local agencies contributing to prompts that helped focus participants on local problems. However, the activities started late, had vague prompts and were rather rushed, leaving us scrambling to put together ideas for an unclear goal. It should be noted that delays were often not the fault of the organizers – at one point a jr. college band started playing an amazing but extremely loud cover of the Black Keys. So keeping control over the space is an issue as well.

Openness – openness is a complex term with many implications that deserves a more careful unpacking at a later date. For now, let’s just say that openness was a central motivation of agencies and participants. Government agencies want to have their data used to demonstrate the effectiveness of various initiatives. One member of the team I was part of at SFSU was part of Lucas Arts until it was acquired by Disney and he was laid off, meaning that he couldn’t use much of his work over the previous six years on the job market. Participating in open-source projects was a chance for him to create a public portfolio and show evidence of being able to collaborate.

Presentations at SFSU

Presentations at SFSU

Deliverables – be clear about what the final product can be, and if a winner is to be declared, what criteria the team will be judged on. Also, where will these project ideas go? There are well-known examples of products developed out of hackathons, such as Adobe’s Phonegap, and it’s clear projects can find a home in companies. But a more open perspective can leave the next step for projects unclear. Uploading a project to Github is great, but what would be better is suggesting what the next level is. Don’t simply say that the projects will be “evaluated” – what will happen to them? Will they be tested in the field? Can organizations offer other kinds of support for people wanting to develop an idea further?